The Ariel View
I did not fit in with my 150 year history in the American South. Not fitting in cost me my home, my heritage, most of my friends, and many of my family. And I am now going to invite up a student who has written a whole lot of essays, and I've read some of them. Leslie, come on over here. The minute she opens her mouth, you'll know that she hasn't entirely left Alabama. (laughing) Good to see you.
Good to see you.
Leslie has been working for years!
Okay, tell us about where you stand. Not in your writing, but in your story. Tell us your story.
So, my story is that I had a 150 year history in Alabama.
What did that look like?
And that what that looked like is my family owns land in the Black Belt of Alabama, which is so called because the black dirt and because that's where slavery was taking place, where plantations were.
And they meant both of those things when they called it the Black Belt?
You know, that's a good question. I've only known it for the blac...
k soil, but I imagine it probably had this other meaning, as well. So...
And instantly, when I write down stuff, it's little fragments. I'm just sort of picking up phrases, sounds, things that resonate for me, and that phrase, the Black Belt. Okay, yeah. Tell us the town where you--
So, the town that I first lived in was Livingston, Alabama, which is also in the Black Belt. It's not where my family is from, but it was nearby. And my first home, though, was in a blue and white single wide trailer in a segregated trailer park that I do remember. And in addition to that, we had a black maid, and we were--
So, right away, let's get this picture straight. Double wide trailer--
No, single wide.
And a maid.
Single wide, yes, single wide.
Single wide trailer, single wide trailer and a maid. This does not fit any stereotype picture that I have of like the white DAR, and I think your family was Daughters of the American Revolution, South in a segregated place.
Your family did not have a lot of money.
And part, and incidentally, is this a problem? No, it is not. This is interesting. It's much more interesting than if it was everything that we already expected or had seen in a million movies.
Right, definitely not that.
And if it was everything we expected, your parents would be terrible racists, but what was your father's job?
So, my father was the newspaper editor of a weekly newspaper. It was the first newspaper in the state in 1967, to not segregate black news from at the time, I mean well, at the time, it was called colored news from white news. These are things that I didn't know at the time, but that literally and metaphorically colored my life. So, in this trailer park, in addition to it being segregated and we had a black maid, my mother worked for Headstart, one of the only white woman, the only white woman to work at Headstart, my father had an integrated newspaper, and we were members of the country club because that (audience laughing) 'cause that's where we went swimming, but we couldn't afford to have a clothes dryer, so we hung all our clothes out on the line. So, it was this, so when I think about my story, I think that scene, I think of a scene of my mother lying out in her bathing suit on a quilt with the sheets hanging on the clothesline, our maid has just gone home, my father's at the paper, and she's laying out to get a little color on her skin so we can go to the country club so the girls, Jennifer and I, can go swimming. So, that's what I see as my opening scene.
I will say, this woman has taken a memoir class or two with me and elsewhere.
Yes, I have.
But yes, you have got a scene, and there was not one abstract interpretive generalization there.
That's because you sit on my shoulder. (laughing)
I am going to sneak into all of your brains. You don't know it's happening. So yes, that sounds like a scene that sets up a whole lot of conflict. And even, you know, sort of the... It's so particular. The black maid, I want her to have a name, incidentally.
Oh, it's Eloise.
Eloise, okay. Actually, that's kind of funny, because what's the name, for people who did not grow up in Livingston, Alabama, who do we think of when we hear the name Eloise?
In the Plaza, right.
Eloise at the Plaza!
And that was her real name.
And that was her real name, okay. Who were you in that family? What did you, did you buy into everything that you saw and heard in that town? I'm sure you heard a lot of very racist language.
No, not initially.
You did not.
I did not. So, that's the context, and then... But because we were, what I bought into or understood is that we were poor, but even though we were poor, I went to Sumter Academy, which was the white school that was started in response to segregation, desegregation. But when I got to that white school, when I'm in this white school, it's very clear that I don't have the things that white girls in Alabama should have.
I didn't have beautiful white girl hair, and I didn't have skin that tanned beautifully, and I didn't have white teeth.
So you were very clear on what the problems were.
Oh yeah, it was so obvious. And all the girls that had those things, they, in fifth grade, in fourth grade, they had boyfriends and they made cheerleader, and I didn't have any of those things, and I did not make cheerleader, and I did not have a boyfriend. So, from there, we moved to another small town, and I went to my first integrated school. I did try out for cheerleader, I did make cheerleader, but I spent the rest of my, you know, high school career trying to have, trying to demonstrate that I could get up two hours early and fix my hair to look like Farrah Faucet. I could wear a padded bra to look like I was, you know, curvaceous. I couldn't do much about my yellowed teeth and my white skin that burned but didn't tan, but my job, as I saw it in high school, was to find a boyfriend, because if I didn't find one, I was never gonna find one. So, I did, and I got married at age 20. Engaged at 19, married at 20. And that should've been the end of my story, I lived happily ever after, I was a good girl--
Or miserably ever after.
Or miserably ever after. Yeah, but I was stuck, absolutely. But I was a good girl, I went to church every Sunday, even though it was what they called in Alabama the Whiskeypalian church because (audience laughing) Episcopalians drink real wine at communion, but nobody else in Alabama drinks real wine. They drink grape juice for the Lord's Supper. But still, I became a teacher, and I, you know, tried really hard to be a good person, and then I did something that I never thought I would be able to do, and it's so minor compared to everybody else, but I had what I--
Never compare your story to anybody else's. It's your story.
It's my story--
It's big for you.
It was huge for me. So, I had what I termed an almost affair in the sense that I was intimate with my husband's best friend and my best friend's fiance, and it carried on, it never was sexual intercourse, we never kissed, but there was this intimate touching, and it destroyed me as a person to think that I could do something so horrible against my friends and my God, my faith, everything, that ultimately, it, you know, that event, you know how, Joyce, you tell us what's the world before. All of that was the world before, then something happens, and then what was the world after? The thing that happened was the thing I did, and--
The almost affair.
The almost affair.
We always need a name for characters who hold an important place in our life. What was his name?
The almost affair, Macon.
Macon, like Georgia?
Yeah, like Macon, Georgia.
Macon. Incidentally, if you have a hard time using the name of a person, that's fine. You just need to name them something. And don't name arbitrarily, really think of a name that is right for them.
And so, then after that, it was everything of me trying to get back to, you know, being the good girl, the good Southern girl, and not being able to do that, until ultimately, my husband Jerry, I never confessed this to him, but it so destroyed me, it destroyed our marriage, and he divorced me. I didn't want the divorce. He divorced me.
You didn't want the divorce?
I did not want the divorce.
When you say that the almost affair destroyed your marriage, like what? What changed? What did Jerry, Jerry didn't know you had the almost affair, so what was he reacting to?
Did you decide you didn't wanna have sex with him anymore or did you...
Would you be crying all the time or...
I was crying all the time, but mostly, and we fought all the time. He would leave his stuff around the house, and it would make me mad, and I had taught kindergarten at the time and I thought, well, I'm gonna give him a natural consequence. (all laughing) And I'm gonna tell him, I'm gonna pile all his stuff in the middle of the floor and I'm going to tell him either you put your stuff away or I'm gonna throw it in the trash, and that became, he called it, I middle to the floored him. And those were constant fights. He wanted me to make his sandwiches for work and I didn't want to and--
Basically, it was about you. I'm trying to, you're very good at the small details, and that's no small thing that you are, because that's crucial, and that's what I'm looking for from all of you. But the big picture, the big reason your marriage ended was not because you gave Jerry consequences or, it was because you were now stepping back from a world that you had bought into and you were no longer--
Right, and the big, the big, and we need to first look at the small stories. With Shizue, I was giving her kind of a hard time, and also Bonnie, wanting them to get to the stories, not the big interpretations. You have the stories, and now I want you to pull back and see what they mean. Not that you're gonna tell us on the page, but that you're gonna understand where you're going. You, the world suddenly, I actually, I love it that Leslie did not have an affair with Macon, that, and I'm not speaking from a moral standpoint that I love it, I love it from a story standpoint. The affair would be a much more predictable thing, like your family living in a Gone With the Wind mansion and going to the country club, it's being in a single wide trailer and going to the country club, and having the black maid and going to the country club. What I love about you not having an affair is that it's so tiny, but it's so huge, and it changed, and he never even found out about it. The change was internal. You acknowledged, you saw something in yourself, and you didn't wanna have that thing. You wanted to be that good girl with that hair, and those teeth, but that was not who you were.
I wanted to be like the Ivory Soap commercial, 99 and 44/100ths percent pure.
And actually, I want you to somewhat get away from those cliches, because that's the easy part, and we sort of know all of that already. I, and you know, like didn't make the cheering squad. You know, just about every writer I've ever met I somebody who didn't make the cheering squad and I'm one.
But then I did, and that's the only reason it's important is because I didn't, and then I did.
You were trying so hard, that is a beat. I'm now going to simplify these beats so much, not that I want those stories to disappear, but just to sift through them and see the big through line thread. Family didn't really fit in, but tried to. Didn't fit, tried to. Part in, part out. Your parents did have that Southern heritage, you did have the bloodlines and the DAR credentials but your father was in his small way, you know, doing the right thing, probably still using some words around the house that were the other? No, he didn't do that, okay.
Not exactly, okay.
So part in, part out. And then, you really didn't fit in at school, the white girl school, white school didn't fit in. Tried hard, and basically, she denied who she was. She changed her hair, she changed her body, she stuffed her bra, she did all the things to look like the person who would fit in. Fit in. So this would be a very simple arc. Didn't fit in, didn't fit in, tried hard, fit in, landing place. I used to not fit in, then I did fit in. That's not your story at all and that wouldn't be a very interesting story. And the fit in looked like cheering squad, better hair (Leslie laughs) curvy body, boyfriend, husband. And then, and for a while, I bet you cut recipes out of magazines and--
I had a whole little recipe--
Saved coupons and did all that stuff. Marriage.
Oh, the end of the rainbow! And then, almost affair. And that was I think you were correct in identifying that as the big turning point moment when the world shifted.
And incidentally, if... Here's a little tip to everybody out there with whatever story you're wrangling. If she has Ann almost affair with Macon, if at all possible, I wanna meet Macon somewhere earlier on.
Does Macon show up anywhere here?
In high school, when I-
In high school.
'Cause he was my husband's best friend and my best friend's fiance.
Okay, so we wanna see Macon here and he's not a main character. But it's kind of like that rule, you know, in a movie. You know, you don't... A person does not just as they're going to kill somebody, there's a gun that we see for the first time that they pick up. The gun, we have seen the gun hanging over the mantelpiece or whatever, we know that gun is there. You know in the movies when there is a certain way that the cinematographers shoot a party scene that makes you know who the man is that Reese Witherspoon is going to be going off with at the end of the evening. You know what I'm talking about? He's just a guy at the party but he's shot differently, he's lit differently, that's Macon here. So that we get a little sense that Macon's gonna come and then your life falls apart. And what does your life apart look like? Jerry leaves.
Yeah, well, it's a little slower than that. But Jerry leaves.
At this point, you're giving equal proportion to all the segments. And in fact, I think Jerry leaving is gonna happen pretty quick. 'Cause we haven't even got you out of Alabama yet. (laughs) And basically, I mean, I might like a sentence about the consequencing and, you know, you're not making the sandwiches. But really we get that pretty quick. You're not very good at playing the good girl.
That's not really who you are. And as much as you don't want to be that other person, you see that is who you are. So Jerry leaves and what happens to you, then?
So I'm staying in the house, then I live home with my parents.
To the trailer?
No, by then we live in our house, it's a new town.
Live with parents.
I move back to my, I move home with my parents. And then for the first time, I move out on my own to an apartment in Tuscaloosa and for the first time in my life I have a neighbor across from me who's black. Everyplace else, although I went to an integrated school, my church and I used to say I went to an integrated church, because we had one black couple that went to our church, but for Alabama at that time, it sure felt integrated. It wasn't 'til I got out that I knew differently. And then I had this one black neighbor and we became friends and I was very attracted to him and I was quite horrified that I could be attracted to a black man because this was not something that a good white girl would do in Alabama. There's a lot of scenes around that.
There's one scene, it is actually one scene. And sometimes, one scene is better than a lot of scenes.
And if you have built up as I know you will, the whiteness and the rigidity and structure of that old Alabama white world that you aspire to be part of, that your family aspired to be part of, even though you didn't fit in very naturally, then acing in which what was his name?
John. That acing of you meeting John. And, you know, this is a rule in the movies. I'm using the movies more and more as rules for me because movies have to move fast. I'm right now writing a screen play, an adaptation of a novel of mine, the novel Under the Influence is 350 pages long, the screen play is and it's like triple space cut. So you don't have the luxury of a whole lot of scenes. Every single change in a character, beat in the story, you get about one scene to establish. And you know what? We understand it not less well because there are fewer scenes, but better because it's clearer, it's a clearer shot. So you get together with John and do you have an affair with John?
I don't. He asked me, "Would you ever date a black man?" And I answered, "Not in Alabama."
Not in Alabama, okay. Interesting answer.
So that could mean like I'm not going new, or it could mean I guess we have to leave Alabama.
Not in Alabama.
And understandably, he gets mad. And I said, you know, you gotta let me explain, which, of course, he didn't have to let me explain, but I'd said you gotta let me explain. It's 'cause I... It's too hard in Alabama. That's what I said, you know, internally all the stuff you talked about, there was, you know, this is not what a white girl does.
Yeah. And he lived in Alabama, he knew all this, you don't even need the scene of you explaining, we already know that. So not in Alabama. I think it's very important to know when the camera cuts away. And basically the answer is not in Alabama. And so where did you go then?
So then I got a job in Caracas, Venezuela.
Okay! (all laugh) Naturally, that's what we always do! When we can't date who we want to in our state, we go to Caracas.
And I was thrown together with a roommate from Oakland, California and which is why I'm in Oakland now but who was mixed, half white, half black. So this was the first time I'd ever shared a house, a room with someone who wasn't white, and I drank water after her when her black boyfriend came.
It's so interesting, these aren't even questions that would come to my mind, and part of what Leslie's job is it's a very interesting task you have to make it so that we understand what a big deal it is to have that sip of water. I just watched, I don't know how many of you have seen the new documentary about Mr. Rogers, about Fred Rogers. But they're talking at one point about how Fred Rogers who clearly, you know, was an extraordinary teacher and human being what his response was to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. And he had a black character on the show Mr. Is that Mr. McFeely? It was Mr. Feely I think the mailman.
Anyway, and he has a little segment that was right around that time where Mr. Feely or whoever it is who is the mailman, the black character, stops by in his mailman outfit, deliver the mail and it's a hot day and Mr. Rogers says, is sitting with his shoes off and his socks off and he's got his feet in the pool and he says, "You wanna soak your feet in the pool?" And I didn't get it until they sort of talked about it in the show. I actually I remember that episode 'cause, you know, I have three children. That that was about the big resistance to black children, black people going into pools and that was a very radical thing that he was doing. See, I didn't get that watching it. And when I'm reading your story, I need you to so immerse me in the lens that you grew up looking out of which is not the lens that I grew up. I don't mean that we were some enlightened world, we just were a different world. I grew up in a very white New England where just those issues kinda didn't come up, I was sort of clueless. But that moment done right when you take the glass of water is huge. And we better not miss it that it was a big deal for you because I would have missed it, okay.
So after living with Rebecca and then her boyfriend Marco, it was actually Marco that I drank after for the first time. But I went out and had a brief affair with a black man and once that happened, I knew I was not gonna live in Alabama again.
Okay. So there was a series of, we see a series of progressions of you're leaving Alabama.
And in my head, your story is called Leaving Alabama, I don't know what it's called, but... (laughing)
The working title was Not in Alabama.
Not in Alabama. Actually, I like that better, I like that better. (laughing) Okay, I'm going to sort of cut here to the big picture. I think this is such an important exercise and it is excruciating to do it. In one sentence say what your book is without 10 different prepositional phrases.
Right, right. It's the story of a girl who should have fit with her history, tried to fit, wanted to fit, but ultimately did not.
But there's another piece, too which is the grief that you feel--
Yeah, and the grief that I feel--
And the grief that she feels because after all these years how long have you lived in Oakland now?
Oh, I've been out of Alabama for 25 years.
Yeah, and it is still hard for you to not be in Alabama. What is a moment 'cause I want pictures always. Give me an example of a moment when you miss Alabama the most.
I miss it the most in the fall. And it's especially hard in Oakland because Oakland's fall is very similar to Alabama's fall because we don't have a lot of humidity in Alabama during the fall.
And notice she says we. She doesn't say they.
And so the sun is really bright and the sky is crystal clear, sparkly blue and the breeze is cool, and so you're and the fast food chain Wendy's used to have a little sign that said frosty days and chili nights because and that's exactly the way it was. You could eat frosties during the day 'cause it was hot, but then you needed chili at night because it twas cold. So when I'm here, all of that's the same except that there's no smell of freshly cut grass for the football season. I don't hear the drums of the bands practicing for football season. I mean, football's a barbaric game, I don't even like it, but I miss that communal feeling.
And I think, because we all know it is almost a cliche all the bad parts of Alabama.
And we all know we don't, I won't presume, but I know that I, it's not hard for me to understand why a person would not wanna be living in a place where all of that is going on. But the interesting thing is that in spite of all of that you still love it.
And I wanna propose that before you get into any of the rest, and I know you've been working hard on this for a long time, but that you give us, it's almost the prebook that we just see you in Oakland, I was gonna say Oklahoma that you... There's a time I miss Alabama the most. And maybe just two pages, maybe half a page of your summoning up the place that you left. It is knowing what was lost and then it gives us a bit of the stakes, too. It's what I talked about with that aerial view. And then let us go to your mother and the trailer and going off to the... I think you're well on your way, this is not a memoir that you're just starting.
But I would rather I would absolutely embrace the discordant parts of it and the parts that aren't so neat, like, you know, your marriage didn't end because of an affair, your marriage ended over your just thinking, something that went on in your head, your dangerous thoughts, your dangerous thoughts. Thank you.
I don't even need to say good luck to you 'cause I know you're gonna do it. (audience applauding) What is my story about? And that is always the question that we need to answer for ourselves long before we write. And having answered it in your head is not good enough. I actually want you to write it down. And as you're writing, periodically look back up at that sentence you have written and refer back in. Am I still writing about what I said my story was about? And when I'm telling about my mother and her MS, am I still on target with my quest for independence? Maybe yes, maybe there's a reason why that does fit in, but what was your story about?